Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | An intensive three-year lobbying effort and some superb leadership by the San Diego Association of Governments has paid off with the Sandag board including a train stop at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in the list of projects for which Sandag will apply for federal stimulus money.

The decision to include the San Dieguito River Bridge/Double Track and Del Mar Fairgrounds Rail Platform came at the Friday board meeting where the 19 member board, made up of local officials from area governments, prioritized projects on which engineering funds would be spent to make them “shovel ready” for stimulus implementation.

Under stimulus rules Sandag will now submit the prioritized applications for $8 billion in high speed/intercity rail projects to the state, which will then produce a statewide list to be forwarded to Washington in two batches.

The vote followed an intensive lobbying effort by local train-stop advocates, including the authors of this commentary, who have highlighted the economic as well as environmental benefits the train stop would provide in decreasing traffic congestion and pollution, increasing attendance at fairground events, and providing a safe ride home to persons who have partied perhaps too much to drive home from fair and race concerts, and other fairground activities.

The advocates also demonstrated how the project could be broken into phases to rapidly accomplish the train stop goal and construction of at least one of the two new trestles with the minimum investment.

The construction of at least one new trestle over the San Dieguito River will permit the removal of the old circa 1914 trestle now used by trains in both directions. Removing or shoring up of aging structure is essential for the dredging of the San Dieguito River needed in order to provide adequate “tidal flushing” of the $86 million lagoon restoration project, now nearing completion.

Speaking in behalf of the project, Vista Mayor Pro-Tem Bob Campbell, who serves as chairman of the North County Transit District noted that a new trestle would make possible the old trestle’s removal, rather than spending money to further brace it. “I believe it is important to not spend money putting Band-Aids on our bridge projects,” he said.

Matt Hall, Carlsbad city councilman and vice chairman of the Transportation Committee, noted the activities of the committee which had given priority to this project, moving it from long-term priority to its current consideration.

“I believe it is important to recognize the need to expand all rail transit options,” Hall said. “We import 70 percent of the oil we use. It is foolish to think we can afford to drive cars everywhere forever. The fairground is a high-value location and establishing a convenient direct rail mass transit option there has immense economic and environmental benefits. The SANDAG Board recognizes that.”

San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price spoke strongly in favor of removing the old trestle so river dredging could proceed unimpeded, and noted the economic benefit such a stop would provide for the races and other fairground events. In May, Slater-Price wrote the State Race Track Leasing Commission urging that it negotiate a contribution toward the cost of at least the train stop platform and access ramp portion of the total project in the negation of the concession for the next 20-year lease for the thoroughbred racing at Del Mar.

Responses to the state’s call for bids for the next 20-year race concession are due in September. The current SANDAG estimate of the total project’s cost is $88 million for all double tracks and both trestles, and $6 million for the train stop platform, the first 600-foot phase of which was budgeted at $3.7 million. A 600-foot platform is adequate to accommodate current Coaster and Amtrak trains.

Sandag CEO Gary Gallegos is hopeful the project will be included in the state’s October submission to Washington.

If the thoroughbred racing industry gets behind the project, the chances of state’s selection of the project for stimulus funding should increase dramatically.

Del Mar is expected to receive additional weeks of thoroughbred racing once Hollywood Park racetrack closes. The Inglewood City Council has approved development of a “new town” on that 238 acre site.

With Hollywood Park racetrack gone, Los Angeles and Orange county race fans are expected to come to the expanded Del Mar race meet.

“It will be much better to have them come directly to the racetrack by train than by car. Anyone driving on the I-5 past this spot between June and August can easily realize what this could mean for our highway circulation,” Hall said.

Helen and Richard Nielsen-Eckfield are part of a group of thoroughbred race enthusiasts who have been promoting the re-establishment of the train stop at the Del Mar Fairground and races for several years. Now retired, he is a former City Manager and college professor and she was co-owner of Carlsbad Ranch Market, a produce market in Carlsbad.

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